Just off the north coast of Kent is the Isle of Sheppey. Nine miles long and five miles wide, the small island has a history dating back hundreds of years. It has been the site of various seaports throughout the years as well as having a rich military history all the way up to the Second World War.
The name Sheppey comes from the ancient Saxon word ‘Sceapige’ which means isle of sheep as it used to be covered year round with the grazers. In 1667 it became one of the few areas in the British Isles to be lost to a foreign power since 1066 as it was captured by a Dutch fleet.
More recently, it became a commercial port island with Sheerness, the main town, being the heart of trade. The Royal Navy used it as a dockyard town from the 17th century right up until the 20th century, when it became a purely commercial port.
In the 1950s, however, the island underwent a drastic transformation as it made the transition to becoming primarily a tourist hotspot. It is located just 45 miles from London and so was a popular site for visitors from London, Kent and Essex, all of whom flooded across the Swale to have a day at the seaside.
The town housed all of the traditional British seaside town essentials: chippies, arcades, and caravan parks just to name a few. When the island is full of visitors, it’s population doubles to roughly 80,000. In its heyday, Sheppey was a prime example of British seaside tourism.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the rise of the beach hut. While we see the little stripy cabins of today as a recent invention, they actually date back in origin more than 250 years though they looked very different back then.
Today’s beach huts find their roots in the ‘bathing machines’ of the early 19th century. These were essentially horse-drawn carriages which were completely enclosed but could open out at the back. There was nothing mechanical in the way they worked originally. They would take the beachgoer from their house, all the way to the water’s edge.
The inhabitant would strip off on the journey and, flanked by attendants, would climb straight out of the bathing machine into the water. It was a medical practice initially. Prescribed by doctors to the elderly and unwell, the cold sea bath was intended to cure a whole range of different afflictions.
It was a treatment popularised by George III in 1789 which saw increasing growth. Over time, the beaches became more and more populated. The gender divides that had initially existed were steadily being transgressed as people looked to the mixed-bathing of Europe and America. Before long, visits to the beach were incredibly popular from the richest to the poorest in society.
Out of this demand for sun and fresh air, permanent beach huts replaced the aging bathing machines as the modern way of changing at the beach. They quickly became a staple of the British seaside with their colourful patterns and saw the biggest boom in their history in the height of British seaside tourism in the 1950s.
However, since then the numbers of Brits going on local holidays has decreased as air travel became cheaper more accessible. The allure of foreign beaches in the baking sun with exotic cuisine has sapped much of the life out of traditional British seaside towns. Sheppey now suffers from high levels of unemployment, particularly in the wake of Thamesteel going into administration.
New development and investment in the area is more important now than ever, to kickstart the local economy once again and revamp the tourist appeal that was once so strong. Keeping the local culture and heart of Sheppey alive is key and so all new developments have to honour that original style, but new innovations are needed to give the island a refresh.
rbmp were asked by Michelle Boulger Expert Landscape Consultancy to prepare a series of AVR Verified Views of a proposed new housing development. Providing accurate visualisations of how the proposed developments will look is absolutely key. Those investing in the new builds have to be confident that the visual impact will not be severe so they can get planning permission, and local residents must be happy that the look of the new projects will not detract from the history that the island has.
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